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Alcohol Increases the Risk of Cancer- What do you need to know?

Home >> Blogs >> Cancer Care Oncology Medical Oncology >> Alcohol Increases the Risk of Cancer- What do you need to know?

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January 11, 2018 0 18 5 minutes, 25 seconds read

Over the long term, drinking alcohol increases your risk of serious illnesses, such as mouth, throat and breast cancer, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) cites between 5-6% of new cancers and cancer deaths globally as directly attributable to alcohol. Of course, not everyone who drinks will get cancer. But scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink alcohol than those who don’t.

Alcohol can cause at least seven types of cancer:

  • Bowel cancer (Colon)
  • Breast cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer (voice box)
  • Liver cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • Pharyngeal cancer (upper throat).

Heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver (where damage to the liver causes scar tissues to build up) which can then lead to primary liver cancer.

Alcohol use—whether light, moderate, or heavy—is linked with increasing the risk of several leading cancers, including those of the breast, colon, oesophagus, and head and neck, according to evidence gathered by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

How Alcohol Raises the Risk of Cancer

Scientists have not identified any single mechanism that explains exactly why alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer. However, they have identified a number of factors that are likely to play a role


When you drink, the alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can damage your DNA (the genetic material that makes up our genes) and stop your cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer.

Oestrogen and other hormones

Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones in the blood, such as oestrogen, which is linked to breast cancer.

Folate and other nutrients

Alcohol drinkers tend to have lower levels of folate, an important vitamin that helps our cells produce new DNA correctly. Some studies have found that cancer is more common in people with low levels of folate in their blood

Classification of Alcohol as a Carcinogen by the WHO

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of World Health Organisation (WHO), has assessed the evidence and declared that alcohol is a cause of various types of cancers in the human body.  Alcohol is thus classified as type I Carcinogen (i.e Cancer-Causing Agent) by IARC.

Alcohol use during and after cancer treatment

In people who have already been diagnosed with cancer, alcohol intake could also affect the risk of developing new cancer.

There are some cases of cancer treatment in which alcohol clearly should be avoided. For example, alcohol – even in very small amounts – can irritate mouth sores caused by some cancer treatments, and can even make them worse. Alcohol can also interact with some drugs used during cancer treatment, which might increase the risk of harmful side effects. It’s important to talk to your doctor about this if you are being treated for cancer.

But for people who have completed cancer treatment, the effects of alcohol on cancer recurrence risk are largely unknown. It’s important to discuss this with your doctor.

Impact of Smoking in Combination With Alcohol Consumption

Some malignancies are causally linked to both alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking.

A pooled analysis of 17 case-control studies identified a potent interaction between alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking in cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx, and a review identified evidence of robust interaction in 22 of 24 published studies on oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, and esophageal cancers established synergistic interaction between alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking exists. This means that, in cancers for which both alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking are causal factors, the cancer risks in those who are both alcohol drinkers and cigarette smokers are much larger than the risks seen for those who only drink alcohol.

Myths about Alcohol consumption

1. Myth: The alcohol in hard liquor is more intoxicating.
Fact: Beer, wine and liquor all contain the same kind of alcohol (Ethanol). All thing being equal, one standard drink should produce the same level of intoxication. The association between alcohol drinking and cancer risk has been observed constantly regardless of the specific type of alcoholic beverage (Beer, wine or Liquor)

2. Myth: Light Alcohol use (especially Red Wine) has beneficial effect on cardiovascular health
Fact: The benefits of alcohol on appetite, tolerance to cancer treatment and cardiac health have been overstated. The risk of cancer is increased even with low levels of alcohol consumption. the net effect of alcohol is harmful. Thus, alcohol should not be recommended to prevent cardiovascular disease.

3. Myth: Alcohol improves sexual performance.
Fact: Alcohol can make people feel less uncomfortable in the social situation. In reality, alcohol can actually keep guys from getting or keeping an erection and it can lower girl’s sex drives too. More importantly, alcohol can affect the decision-making ability. You might think you’re ready to have sex when you’re not or you might forget to use a condom which can result in undesirable consequences.

Cessation of alcohol consumption reduces the risk of cancer

Results of meta-analysis and pooled analysis that focus directly on this question for upper aerodigestive tract cancers indicates that risk of these cancers become comparable to that of never drinkers after quitting alcohol for the long term.

Staying in control of your drinking

Raise the awareness of alcohol as a cancer risk and do not indulge in it. Here are three ways you can cut back:

  • Keep track of what you’re drinking.
  • Know your strength. Alcoholic drinks labels will have the abbreviation “ABV” which stands for Alcohol By Volume, or sometimes just the word “vol”. It shows the percentage of your drink that’s pure alcohol. This can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5%, some stronger lagers can be as much as 6% ABV. This means that just one pint of strong lager can be more than three units of alcohol, so you need to keep your eye on what you’re drinking.
  • Have several drink-free days a week. If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.

Key Points:

  • Alcohol increases the risk of Cancer
  • Smoking and drinking together increase your risk of developing throat and mouth cancer more than doing either on their own.
  • In cancer patients, alcohol intake could also affect the risk of developing new cancer.
  • Cessation of alcohol consumption decreases the risk of cancer.
  • Stay in control of your drinking.

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